‘The Buried Letter’ by Mary Jacobus
In this essay on Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, Mary Jacobus begins by comparing that novel with another by Bronte, Shirley. Jacobus argues that Shirley is the ‘seed’ of Villette and that her earlier ‘assertion of the unalienable rights of self’ in Shirley leads to the situation of Villette where ‘repression returns vengefully on the heroine in the form of a ghostly nun’ (1986: 40). The idea of Villette being a ‘buried letter’ crops up early on and Jacobus refers to the letters of ‘Reason’ and ‘Feeling’ that Lucy Snowe writes to Graham Bretton: ‘one for his benefit […], the other for hers, an outpouring of her innermost self’ (p. 41). This sense of revelation and concealment is also clear in the narrative of the novel:
The narrative and representational conventions of Victorian realism are constantly threatened by an incompletely repressed Romanticism. Supernatural haunting and satanic revolt, delusion and dream, disrupt a text which can give no formal recognition to either Romantic or Gothic modes. The buried letter of Romanticism becomes the discourse of the Other, as the novel’s unconscious – not just Lucy’s – struggles for articulation within the confines of mid-nineteenth century-realism. The resulting distortions and mutilations in themselves constitute an aspect of the novel’s meaning, like the distortions of a dream text (p. 41).
Jacobus argues then that Villette is haunted by Romanticism, which was at the time being rather superseded by the rationalism and empiricism that had dominated since the Enlightenment period. Yet Jacobus also adds that Villette is haunted by other ghosts: ‘the unacknowledged phantom of feminism and […] the strangeness of fiction itself’ (p. 42). Fiction is apparently a ‘peculiar reserve both of repression and of the Unheimliche – the uncanny’ (p. 42). Jacobus concludes: ‘Lucy’s haunted self-estrangement encodes the novel’s alienation from its ghostly subject’ (p. 42).
Interestingly, in relation to narrative voice, Jacobus points out that both Matthew Arnold and Kate Millett have seen the narrator, Lucy Snowe, as being one and the same as the author, Charlotte Bronte (although Arnold uses this as a stick to beat Bronte with and Millett uses it to portray Bronte as a woman meditating on a ‘prison break’). Jacobus suggests that Bronte invites the reader to make such an identification only to then pull the rug from under us frustrating any equivalence between the narrator and author. There is a discussion of Lucy’s lies and her unreliability as a narrator. Jacobus suggests that Lucy forces the reader to ‘misread’ her, even while her hidden thought break through is imagery of the supernatural and the Christian Passion.
Lucy Snowe is of course the narrator of other people’s stories. She tells the story of Polly (Paulina) for example and her lament for the girl’s weakness might be a kind of displacement for her own feelings of hopelessness and despair. This might also apply to her identification with the spinster, Miss Marchmount, and with the deranged woman who she cares for at the Rue Fossette during the vacation from her teaching work. Jacobus sees both figures as ‘aspects of Lucy’s repression’ and she is adamant that Lucy’s ‘regression from child to invalid to cretin parodies and reverses the Romantic quest for self’ (p. 44). Many characters find Lucy enigmatic and want to discover her true self, but instead she is simply ‘a blank screen on which others project their view of her’ (p. 44).
Not even we, the readers, discover who Lucy is. For example, Jacobus refers to Lucy’s refusal to identify Dr. John as Graham Bretton, a reticence that suggests to Jacobus that ‘Lucy prefers to retain her social invisibility’ (p. 44). Instead she prefers to watch the acting out of other people’s relationships. In thinking about this acting out, Jacobus touches on the scene where Lucy does act in a play, but she is ‘impersonating a man while clad as a woman from the waist down’ (p. 45). Jacobus sees in this a ‘nonsubservience to her spectator’s role’ and the transformation of ‘her part into an unorthodox piece of intersexual rivalry’ (p. 45). I wonder whether there is also something more here. Why does Lucy refuse to become completely “male” by dressing up in the full costume? Is there some kind of anxiety here about being dislocated from her sex?
In any case, role play is obviously significant. Jacobus talks about the roles of middle-class women and she emphasises that ‘[t]he governess is peculiarly the victim of middle-class sexual ideology, for the only role open to her is that of bringing up children while marriage and motherhood themselves are paradoxically taboo for her within the family that employs her’ (p. 45). Falling between categories then, Lucy has to play a very unfulfilling role and it is no coincidence that she prefers teaching in Madame Beck’s school to being a governess or companion. Jaconus quotes from Bronte’s letters to show that Bronte had strong views about the role of the unmarried woman:
when patience had done its utmost and industry its best, whether in the case of women or operatives, and when both are baffled, and pain and want triumph, the sufferer is free, is entitled at last to send up to Heaven any piercing cry for relief, if by that he can hope to obtain succour. (Bronte in Jacobus 1986: 46)
Jacobus associates this ‘piercing cry’ with the actress, Vashti, who is such a strong presence in the book. To Jacobus, Vashti is a typical Romantic protagonist: ‘the satanic rebel and fallen angel whose damnation is a function of divine tyranny’ (Jacobus 1986: 46). Lucy’s reaction to this is of both ‘revulsion and admiration’, while Graham Bretton only feels ‘indifference to the spectacle’ (p. 46). In fact Graham Bretton brands Vashti as ‘a fallen woman, a rebel against conventional morality’ and ‘a demonic symbol of sexual energy created by a woman’ (p. 47). Vashti is the opposite then of what Jacobus describes as ‘the static, male-fabricated images of woman’ that Lucy views in the gallery (p. 47). Lucy may appear to be more like the gallery women, but M. Paul recognises in her pink dress the possibility of a ‘latent scarlet woman’ (p. 47).
This mingling of the familiar and unfamiliar brings us back to the uncanny and Jacobus notes how Freud who wrote a seminal essay on the uncanny found that quality particularly in works of fiction. This is especially the case in Villette in which Bronte is ‘suspending the laws of probability for those of the mind’ (p. 47). Jacobus emphasises that the narrative of Villette is dislocated and that it ‘insists on the irreducible otherness, the strangeness and arbitrariness, of inner experience’ (p. 47). Jacobus concludes:’The real becomes spectral, the past alien, the familiar strange; the lost home (heimlich [meaning “homely”]) and the uncanny (unheimlich [literally “unhomely”]) coincide’ (p. 47).
In considering home, Jacobus notes that Lucy cannot be at home in Bretton, but Polly/Paulina as the angel in the house rather than the fallen angel can make herself at home. Yet it is Lucy’s inner drama that is more interesting than the romantic plot of Lucy and Graham, because its supernatural manifestations ‘challenge the monopolistic claims of realism on “reality” – to render its representations no less fictive and arbitrary than the Gothic and Romantic modes usually viewed as parasitic’ (p. 48).
Jacobus now turns to the ghostly nun noting that realist readings of the nun have analysed her symbolism as merely a technique of ‘Gothic machinery’. Jacobus challenges such a view suggesting that the appearance of the nun ‘symbolizes not only Lucy’s repression, but the novelist’s freedom to evoke or inhibit the Unheimliche; to lift or impose censorship’ (p. 48). Jacobus considers now the moments when the ghostly nun appears:
1. When Lucy goes to the garret to read Graham Bretton’s letter.
2. When she buries Graham Bretton’s letters under the pear tree.
3. When M. Paul tells Lucy in the garden that they are alike and have an affinity.
Jacobus considers the ambiguity of the nun’s status, which, though it is revealed as a prank near the end of the novel, is never fully explained. Jacobus wonders whether the nun might actually represent Lucy’s ‘quest for identity and […] her self-estrangement’ (p. 51). There is a long list of women who are represented and constructed by Lucy, who are created through her telling of them: Mrs Bretton, Mme. Beck, Ginevra, Zelie de St. Pierre and Paulina. Jacobus comments; ‘No other woman in the novel has any identity except as Lucy bestows it’ (p. 51).
The whole novel is made by Lucy’s imagination and perhaps her fantasy, especially in creating M. Paul. Jacobus states that M.Paul ‘is animated by a wish fulfillment which it is surely justifiable to see as Charlotte’s own’ (p. 51). In the reflection and affinity of M. Paul and Lucy, Jacobus sees ‘not so much the rehabilitation of the plain heroine, as the persistence of the Lacanian mirror phase’ (p. 51).
[Lucy] is the joker in the pack, the alien, ex-centric self which no image can mirror – only the structure of language. Like the purloined letter in Lacan’s reading of the Poe story, where the meaning of the letter (the autonomous signified) lies in its function in the plot rather than its actual contents, the nun derives her significance from her place in the signifying chain. She has one function in relation to Lucy, another in relation to M. Paul, and another again in relation to Ginevra. The different meanings intersect but do not merge; the threads cross and intertwine without becoming one. (p. 52)
In response to this multiplicity of meanings with regard to the ghostly nun, Jacobus considers how, especially during Lucy’s delirious night walk through the city, the nun comes to represent ‘the external obstacle to marriage between Lucy and M. Paul’ (p. 52). As Lucy glides through the city, the families of the story flash before her eyes; the Homes, the Brettons, the Becks, M. Paul’s adopted family and M.Paul himself alongside his ward. While on the one hand it seems that Lucy is yet again an ‘excluded spectator’, Jacobus asserts that she is also ‘metteur en scene in a drama of her own making’ (p. 53). It seems that the nun has now become a ‘bourgeois belle’, yet Lucy’s commentary on the matter is far from clear and leaves us wondering if this is another fabrication. The nun does return one more time though as the costume left behind by de Hamal, who in leaving it on Lucy’s bed ‘labels her as the nun of the Rue Fossette – at once accusing her of animating the spectre from within herself and forcing her to recognize its true identity’ (p. 55).
At this point, Jacobus moves on to the final evasion: the conclusion of Villette. Just as Lucy writes two letters to Graham Bretton, there seem to be two endings to the novel:
The entire novel, not just its ending, bears the marks of this compromise – between Victorian romance and the Romantic imagination, between the realist novel and Gothicism. The relationship between the two texts is as arbitrary as that between the two letters; as the signified slides under the signifier, so the buried letter bears an ex-centric relation to the public version. This is not to say that the real meaning of Villette, “the TRUTH”, lies in its ghostly subtext. Rather it lies in the relationship between the two, which points to what the novel cannot say about itself – to the real conditions of its literary possibility. Instead of correcting the novel into a false coherence, we should see in its ruptured and ambiguous discourse the source of its uncanny power. The double ending in reversing the truth/fiction hierarchy, not only reinstates fantasy as a dominant rather than parasitic version of reality, but at the same time suggests that there can be no firm ground; only a perpetual de-centering. (p. 55).
Jacobus, M. 1986, Reading Women: Essays in Feminist Criticism, London: Methuen.
Millett, K. 1970, Sexual Politics, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.